New Ottawa group helps people escape domestic abuse — by moving them for free

When he threatened to kill her, her husband was standing in the kitchen holding a knife. 

The young woman fled, desperately climbing onto the roof of her Toronto home, looking for an escape. She screamed at the top of her lungs, but nobody came to help. 

Her husband didn’t kill her, but he left her bloody, like he had many times before during a physically abusive 10-year marriage. 

“I would be beaten, sometimes for hours,” said Ciro, whose last name this newspaper withheld due to safety concerns. 

When the beating stopped, the woman was taken to hospital, where she was treated for extensive wounds, including a damaged eardrum, blood-clotting in her legs, and uprooted hair. She underwent two surgeries.

In 2016, now safe from her husband, Ciro sought ways to deal with her emotional wounds. On a friend’s suggestion, she began volunteering at Shelter Movers, a non-profit organization that helps people who experience domestic abuse pack their bags and safely move to a new home, at no cost. 

The Toronto-based charity, launched in 2016, is the first of its kind in Canada, and has recently launched an Ottawa chapter. It’s partnered with four women’s shelters in the city who refer people to the organization. Once a connection is made, the team strategically plans the move so they operate without running into the client’s abusive ex-partner. They then move the client’s items either to a new home or into a storage facility that’s paid for with donation money. 

So far, Shelter Movers has moved 22 people in Ottawa. (It’s Toronto chapter has helped move more than 300 people.) 

“We focus on the client. There’s no judgement,” said Christine Ormsby, an Ottawa volunteer. “We’re in and out, and we help them pack so they can take all their loved belongings with them.”

Shelter Movers began in the basement of Marc Hull-Jacquin’s Toronto home two years ago. The former energy sector worker said he wanted to do something useful and practical for the community.

“I didn’t want to do something from behind a desk. So I asked police about this concept, and they told me there was no service of this kind … Paid movers are very expensive, and they’re not very discrete,” he said.

Hull-Jacquin said that while he doesn’t have any experience with domestic abuse, his kids are what inspire him. “I hope I can do something that allows other parents to provide the same safe and loving environment,” he said. 

The organization found enough success in Toronto that it expanded to Ottawa last October.

Elizabeth Rock, who heads the Ottawa chapter, said the charity now safely moves around two clients per week, through the shelters Harmony House, Nelson House, Chrysalis and Minwaashin Lodge. Rock said the organization is looking to partner with more shelters throughout the city. Security company GardaWorld has recently offered its services for higher-risk moves.

She said volunteer interest is also increasing. 

“We have over 70 volunteers, so that’s amazing. They’re all over 18 years old, they’ve had police checks and have signed confidentiality agreements,” she said. “Then they go through a training session where we teach them about trauma and (respecting) personal boundaries.”

Rock said abuse can happen to anyone at any time, and some volunteers have been open about their own struggles with domestic violence.

Tyrone, whose last name this newspaper also agreed not to publish, has volunteered in Ottawa since last October. Growing up, Tyrone’s father beat him and his mother. 

After a move to B.C. when he was nine, the abuse worsened. 

“He got increasingly violent. He’d yank me around or shove me. There were times when he came home and saw me sitting there, doing nothing wrong, and it would set him off,” he said.

His mother faced the brunt of the violence, and Tyrone would often hide in his room when his parents were fighting, he said. “Mom and I knew what was going on but we (wouldn’t talk about it) because we were just trying to get through the day,” he said. 

Now 31, Tyrone recently started going to therapy for long-term trauma. He said his mother wishes there’d been a service like Shelter Movers for her, because it can be difficult to escape an abusive relationship while still trying to protect your child. 

To Tyrone, volunteering with the charity was a “no brainer” because he never wants to see a child endure what he went through. He said he felt incredibly humbled when a woman he helped move was grateful to him. “I know I’m helping someone find relief, and hopefully find empowerment,” he said.

For Ciro, the Toronto woman who fled her husband, Shelter Movers has provided her an opportunity to help others in a way in which she wasn’t. 

Each move is like “being taken back in time to my own personal experience,” she said. “It’s something I’ve wanted to forget about but I feel like it’s my duty to help others.” 

Over the next two years, the organization has plans to expand to Vancouver and Halifax.



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